I’m a sucker for historical espionage thrillers. Alan Furst may be my favourite author of all time; Philip Kerr never fails to entertain and Olen Steinhauer has elbowed onto my ‘must read’ list. So now Nik Morton joins that cohort with the continuing adventures of covert English agent Tana Standish. Tana’s not simply a sure-shot with a sniper rifle and a dab hand at close-quarters unarmed combat. She brings a range of extrasensory abilities to the fray, neatly balancing the physical limitations of a female agent in those crucial kill / be killed clinches.
Tana’s missions are set in the latter era of the Cold War, closer to modern times than many historical spy series. This one takes place in Iran in the late 1970s, when the fault-lines in Shah’s western-supported regime threaten to split the totalitarian government asunder. Religious revolution looks a lot like freedom to an oppressed population who live in fear of the state’s secret police. In the midst of this, Tana has local assets to protect and scores to settle. On top of that, she’s under constant surveillance by the Soviet’s psi-spy school who’d be delighted to subject Tana to ‘intimate examination’, and they’ve tasked an accomplished Spetsnaz agent to abduct her.
Author Nik Morton throws a whole lot into this richly detailed story, taking the reader on a glorious guided tour of ancient Persian culture, from the Zoroastrian faith to dusty, backstreet Islamic architecture to the murderous intent of a narcotic-crazed Pahlevani assassin. The opening chapters have a complex scene to set, spanning many centuries while weaving fictional characters into the historical context. It’s something of a slog, a succession of exotic names, places and people which I initially struggled to make sense of. But bear with it – once the main players are in place the pace really picks up. And all credit to the author for setting his story in such an intriguing situation, radically different to the usual 1950s/1960s Eastern European Cold War scenario.
This is a substantial book, not the sort of thriller you skip through without paying careful attention. It maybe goes on a little too long – I’m not sure the listening station episode added a great deal – and some of the characters are quite lightly sketched. Perhaps I would have cared more about fewer players drawn in greater depth. But The Tehran Text carefully balances the psy aspects of the story with more down to earth concerns – like the increasingly apparent discord between MI6 and the CIA, the grimy reality of undercover action in hostile territory. Morton knows how to write a kick-ass action sequence, too, with fight scenes that rival the best of Bourne or Bond.
It’ll be fascinating to find out what happens in the next instalment, assuming that Tana’s operations in the region continue as the Soviet 40th army rolls in Kabul…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Tehran Text by Nik Morton is available as an ebook
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